Justin Taylor, the patriarch of the South Sound shellfish industry, spent the early-morning hours Monday talking to his son, Bill, about Puget Sound water-quality problems, lawsuits and other challenges facing the shellfish industry.
He was lying in a bed at Capital Medical Center, one week after his 90th birthday, weakened by a monthlong bout with pneumonia and an allergic reaction. But his mind was as sharp as ever, Bill Taylor recalled.
Ready for some sleep, the older Taylor let his son roll him over into a more comfortable position in bed. Then he fell asleep for the last time, leaving behind grieving friends and family members grateful for the time they spent in the company of this gentle, yet powerful, spirit.
Taylor was one of the last surviving South Sound oystermen from the days more than 55 years ago when commercial shellfish growers fought an uphill battle to rid Oakland Bay of sulphite waste liquor that poured into the bay from the Rayonier Inc. pulp mill, killing bountiful populations of clams and Olympia oysters.
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The fight for clean water pitted friends against friends, neighbors against neighbors. Shelton was a mill town, and good-paying jobs were at stake. By 1956, the state ordered a halt to the sulphite waste discharge. In 1957, the mill shut down.
The confrontation must have made Taylor uncomfortable. While a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, he didn’t like to pick fights. He didn’t like to argue or step directly into political frays then or in the years that followed.
“He was clearheaded about all the controversy,” said Duane Fagergren, a Mason County shellfish grower who considered Taylor his mentor, confidant and friend. “He was kind of a behind-the-scenes giant.”
Our family lived in Shelton at the time, but my dad – he, too, just turned 90 and has fond memories of the Taylor family – moved his veterinary practice to Lacey two years after the mill closure.
As South Sound water quality improved with the mill closure, Taylor left behind his life as a logger, bought tidelands in Oakland Bay and other South Sound inlets and grew a successful shellfish company.
Even when he wasn’t working, he was on the tideflats, observing the changes in marine life populations and water quality, fascinated by the ebb and flow of the tides.
Late into his 80s, Taylor would roam the family beaches, shovel in hand.
“Some people climb mountains; I walk mudflats,” Taylor told me a few years ago in an interview.
“I cherished every one of the many conversations we had,” Fagergren said.
So did Brett Bishop, a Totten Inlet shellfish grower who thought so much of Taylor, he named his second-born son after him.
“The saddest thing to me is knowing I won’t see him on the bay anymore,” Bishop said.
In the 1970s, Taylor turned the reins of the Mason County-based Taylor Shellfish Co. over to his sons, Bill and Paul, and watched them grow it into the largest commercial shellfish company on the West Coast.
He kept coming into the Taylor Towne office of the family business almost daily until his recent illness.
Raised in the Kamilche Valley, Taylor grew up alongside members of the Squaxin Island Tribe.
The tribe and South Sound shellfish growers had tense times in recent years negotiating a fair settlement to treaty shellfish harvesting rights. But Taylor’s friendships with tribal members remained strong.
“He’s the most honest man I’ve ever known,” said Squaxin Island tribal councilmember Pete Kruger, who last talked to Taylor two days before he died. Two weeks earlier, Kruger shared some venison with him from this year’s tribal deer hunt.
“He was always good to the tribe,” Kruger said.
Despite his gentle ways, Taylor had strong opinions. He was especially passionate when talking about Puget Sound pollution problems and the role shellfish can play in absorbing excess nutrients entering marine waters. But, he said, attempts by the shellfish industry to expand growing operations often are met with lawsuits and appeals by waterfront owners who think shellfish farm operations are unsightly, or even sources of pollution.
Taylor’s passion for shellfish in combating excess nutrients in marine waters comes out loud and clear in a hand-written letter he sent to Gov. Chris Gregoire in December 2009.
“Puget Sound has tremendous potential for growing shellfish, one of the best in the world,” his letter concluded. “It seems to me like a win-win situation. You clean the water, provide jobs and bring in new dollars to the state but sadly it isn’t happening.”
Taylor never quit being an advocate for the shellfish industry, even in his final moments of life.
A memorial service is planned for 1 p.m. Saturday at the Westwood Baptist Church, 333 Kaiser Road N.W., Olympia.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 email@example.com